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Volunteer Fire Departments Worry Loss Of Tuition Grants Could Decimate Them

WANTAGH, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) -- Volunteer fire departments already have been struggling to recruit new members, and now, a popular incentive to join a department is disappearing.

As CBS 2's Carolyn Gusoff reported, funds are running out for SAFER grants, or Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants, which offer tuition reimbursement for volunteer first-responder efforts.

Erica Goetz does not get paid for the time she puts in at the Wantagh Fire Department, where she works as an emergency medical technician. But she does get her local college tuition paid for.

"I only have to pay for my books out-of-pocket, so I'm able to go to school and not worry about all the fees building up behind me," Goetz said.

Her tuition is paid for through a federal SAFER grant, which has long served as an incentive for young people to join volunteer fire departments on Long Island and around the country while they are in college.

But now, fire officials have sounded the alarm as SAFER grants have begun running out – just as the 180 fire departments on Long Island have begun facing a serious volunteer shortage.

When Wantagh Fire Commissioner William Field volunteered 40 years ago, there was a waiting list. But those days are gone.

"Volunteerism is dwindling to an alarming level," Field said. "We have a lot of volunteers who step up to the plate, but a lot of them never make it to first base."

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to extend tuition incentives. He said if they go away, lifelong volunteer firefighters will go away too.

"It's would be a disgrace if this great program weren't continue," Schumer said Monday. "It's been a huge success beyond our wildest dreams.

There are 18,000 active volunteers on Long Island, but they are getting older. Young people leave for college, and if they do come back, they are returning with debt and are too busy working to volunteer.

And those who have received the SAFER grants to volunteer while in college said it was well worth it.

"The $40,000 a year to go away, and I could go for free here while in the fire department – that was really the best of the best choice I could possibly make," said East Meadow volunteer firefighter James O'Brien.

But the tuition incentive grants expire in September.

A total of about 3,000 Long Island firefighters have used SAFER grants over the last three years, costing $4 million in federal funds.

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